Bush flexes his political muscle


President Bush, politicking at full campaign speed, contended Thursday that a vote for Democrats this fall would be a vote to siphon money out of American families’ budgets.

It was Bush the Politician, unleashed, seven weeks before the midterm congressional elections.

The president’s campaigning to help his party win governorships and maintain control of Congress in the November voting has been kept largely under wraps of late. Most of his political appearances have been at closed fundraisers. That reflected his low approval ratings that have GOP candidates eager for Bush’s ability to collect campaign cash but unwilling to be splashed across the local press at his side.

Not so on Thursday.

Racing through three venues in two Florida cities, Bush displayed his competitive streak and a love for engaging in political battle.

"I’m looking forward to reminding the American people there are significant differences in between what our party believes and what the other party believes. It’s easy to tell us apart," the president said, pounding the lectern and shouting at sometimes earsplitting levels, at an open-to-the-press luncheon here that raised $450,000 for state Rep. Gus Bilirakis. He is trying to succeed his father in Congress in a safe Republican district. "And the first place you can start is looking at taxes," the president said.

Bush has repeatedly called for Congress to make permanent all the tax cuts passed at his urging earlier in his administration. GOP leaders have had little success doing so, focusing instead on extensions.

He criticized Democrats for passing what he called a "massive tax increase" in 1993 when their party last controlled the House. And he said that in the 13 years since, "they’ve worked hard to sustain their record as the party of high taxes," with overwhelming majorities of House Democrats voting against many of the Bush cuts.

And now, Bush said, the man poised to be chairman of the House tax-writing committee if Democrats control the chamber "can’t think of one of our tax cuts that should be extended." Bush, who equates that opposition with an intention to raise taxes, was referring, though not by name, to Rep. Charles Rangel (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y.

"There should be no doubt in anybody’s mind where they stand," the president said of Democrats. "If they get control of the House of Representatives, they’ll raise your taxes."

Rangel said he would seek Republicans’ cooperation, but he defended a review of "tax breaks for the wealthy that no one has asked for and have driven our nation deeper into debt."

Stacie Paxton, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said: "Under President Bush, the GOP has turned record surplus into record debt, Americans’ wages are stagnant and families are taking on more and more debt just to keep up in the Republican economy. You can’t trust Republicans to handle your money."

After speaking inside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ football stadium, Bush went to the team’s nearby practice field where he spent more than a half-hour, sleeves rolled up and laughing with excited players and officials. The president offered a pep talk to the team, off to a winless start this season. "I’ve been 0-2 before," he said to laughs. "The beginning of the season is not the end of the season."

Bush wrapped his Florida tour at an Orlando reception that scooped up $2 million for GOP gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, Florida’s attorney general, and the state Republican Party. He hadn’t lost any of his enthusiasm in the four hours since the first fundraiser, and he sounded the same themes.

"We got a record of cutting taxes, and they got a record of opposing tax cuts — it’s night and day," the president said.

Democrats, whom political observers give a chance of gaining a majority in the House and, less likely, the Senate, have sought to make the elections a referendum on the unpopular war in Iraq.

The president, meanwhile, has tried to shift attention to the economy, as well as to the broader war against al-Qaida terrorists and their allies. He continued that push Thursday.

"I need members of Congress who understand that you can’t negotiate with these folks, you can’t hope that they change their mind, that the best way to protect the American people is to defeat them overseas so we do not have to face them here at home," he said.

GOP Rep. Katherine Harris, who won the Republican nomination in this state’s Senate race despite party objections to her candidacy from the White House on down, attended both fundraisers.

But Bush’s help for her long-shot race to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson was limited to briefly noting her presence in Tampa, and urging support for her in Orlando. "I, too, encourage you to vote for Katherine Harris for the United States Senate. Welcome, Katherine," he said before quickly moving on.